Nicholas Lezard has reviewed Existential Monday, by Romanian poet Benjamin Fondane (Benjamin Fundoianu) in The Guardian.
In his review, Lezard writes about the Romanian poet, philosopher and film-maker:
Fondane (1898-1944) was one of quite a few Romanian writers who drifted towards Paris after the first world war in order to pursue their avant-garde interests (others include Tristan Tzara, Eugène Ionesco and Emil Cioran; the last two were friends of Fondane).
Fondane, who was not just a philosopher but a poet, film-maker and literary critic, might be said to have stretched himself too widely to achieve renown in the Anglophone world; but he’s well known in France, where his kind of intellectual – multidisciplined, impossible to pin down into a single school of thought – is celebrated more than it is in the UK. I was only dimly aware of him, but such was my trust in the editorial policy of NYRB Classics, which, in the decade or so of its existence has yet to publish a dud, that I picked the book up. I am glad I did.
Fondane approached philosophy sideways, as it were, not from the conventional angle of actually considering himself a philosopher. His uneasiness with the enthronement of reason was what contributed to this insecurity about his status, but as his friend and mentor Lev Shestov, the Russian-born existentialist philosopher, wrote to him: “You must not let them treat you as a poet, a mystic. You are a philosopher.” His marginal position allowed him, Shestov said, “to ask more daring questions”.
That was in 1936, when there were plenty of daring questions to ask; by 1940, in Paris, it became too daring to ask them, particularly if you were, like Fondane, Jewish. (As Bruce Baugh, the translator, puts it in his excellent introduction: “Fondane … was exactly the sort of Jew Hitler most wanted to get rid of: ‘an authentic Jew’, rebellious, disobedient, and nonconformist.”)
As for the questions Fondane asked, they revolve around the limitations of philosophy and the value it places on reason above all else. Scepticism about reason makes me uneasy: all sorts of idiocies can creep in when it is indulged. But Fondane does not say anything stupid or groundless. Instead he forces us to confront, like Caliban, our faces in the mirror. In his essay “Man Before History” he berates us for not seeing national socialism as “a distorting mirror that reflects back to us a magnified image of our culture’s defining features”: “we give in to a form of vanity that will come back to cost us dearly sooner or later.” Look, he tells us, where our worship of reason has got us.
The read the full Existential Monday review in The Guardian click HERE.